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Healthy habits, one meal at a time

By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2010

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Lots of small steps really do add up when it comes to healthy eating habits. Nutritionists and pediatricians agree that the first step is to eliminate sugary soft drinks at home. Even many fruit juices, popular with the toddler set, contain a lot of empty calories from sugar. When it comes to food, keep trying new things until you find what your children like that you can feel good about serving.

Pizza
Kids love pizza and there’s no reason not to eat it, but if you can make it at home with low-fat cheese and vegetable toppings, that’s even better. Whole-wheat crust, great. If not, keep the occasional takeout pizza on the healthier side by choosing thin or whole-wheat crust pies; skipping extra cheese; serving your hungriest eater two slices instead of three; and adding a simple salad to the plate.

Ham and chicken toppings beat beef, pepperoni, and sausage on the fat meter. Be prepared to say no to breadsticks and wings, which are offered by several takeout chains, and are budget and calorie busters.

Chicken
If you’re trying to wean your youngster off deep-fried nuggets, chunks of white-meat chicken tend to please most palates, though the same preparation night after night will have them yawning at the table. Jazz it up. Offer strips of stir-fried breast with a dipping sauce - salsa, spaghetti sauce, low-fat ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, or hummus - so children can eat with their fingers.

Make a quick soup from low-sodium, low-fat boxed or canned chicken stock. Add sliced carrots and celery, chicken chunks, and your favorite brand of tortellini.

Use whole-wheat tortillas to make chicken wraps with shredded lettuce, Jack cheese, and salsa. Or add a little fresh mozzarella and pesto or leftover tomato sauce. Or use the tortillas to hold Cobb salad ingredients: strips of turkey, ham, low-fat cheese, lettuce.

Marinate cubes of boneless breast in nonfat plain yogurt mixed with a little curry and honey while preparing the rest of the meal. Skewer them and broil or grill.

Snacks
Let’s agree on this: Kids won’t make a fruit salad to satisfy an after-school stomach growl. There are some things to have on hand to make snack time a little healthier.

Microwave popcorn (air-popped or low-calorie snack pack).

Snacks in small zip-lock bags. Those 100-calorie snacks at the grocery store are convenient, but save money and assemble your own. Fill them with peeled and sectioned oranges, chunks of pineapple, or grapes. Make a mix of high-fiber cereal, a few mini-marshmallows, and mini-chocolate chips.

Hard-cooked eggs last in the refrigerator for about a week (drop them into small plastic bags).

Frozen bananas, peeled and cut into large chunks, are good as is or as part of a smoothie with milk or plain low-fat yogurt.

Quesadillas made with tortillas or small pitas and filled with vegetables and chicken or turkey slices, a little cheese, lettuce, and shredded carrots, can be assembled and ready to eat.

Information
For more information on selecting wholesome foods for the family, look at:

■The first lady’s Let’s Move initiative at www.letsmove.gov.

■The American Academy of Pediatrics’ family website at www.aap.org/obesity/families_at_home.html.

■Healthy food on a budget, from the Boston Public Health Commission at healthyfoodonabudget.wordpress.com.

■The state’s Mass in Motion campaign at www.mass.gov/massinmotion.

■Books by nutritionist Ellyn Satter on healthy family meals, which include “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family’’ and “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.’’